That’s too bad for Kane. Not just the ass kicking, I mean. No, that’s just a fact of life on the streets. Four weeks ago and three blocks away, it was me lying in a fucking alley, puking my guts out because some asshole beat the shit out of me. He said I was looking at him wrong. I don’t remember looking at him at all. I turned around and he just hit me in the face. He knocked me flat. When I was down on all fours, he kicked me in the gut like he was trying to kick a hundred-yard field goal. He actually lifted me off of the ground with that kick. I was down for the count after that, and you don’t want to know what it felt like the next day. So yeah, I know exactly how Kane’s feeling right now. What I meant is, he’s feeling like he can’t take it anymore. That’s what’s too bad, because we feel that in a way that people in the normal world hardly ever do. When we feel as though we just can’t take it anymore, we mean it literally. Needless to say, I’m an expert on that, but everyone out here feels that way from time to time. No one’s immune to it. Most of us tough it out. Some of us give in to it and kill ourselves in a fit of depression. Others like me conclude after careful and reasoned consideration that we are, in fact, better off dead. But that God-awful feeling is always a lot worse after you get your ass kicked. You see, they kick the shit out of a lot more than just your ass. They kick the shit out of your self-esteem. When it’s over, you sit by yourself in some dark place and you ache all over and you look around and everything suddenly looks worse than it ever did. If no one’s around, you might even cry. And when that happens, suicide seems like a really good idea. I know. I’ve been there more times than I care to remember. It’s a wonder I never killed myself before tonight.
Kane’s fantasy about leaving here is pretty common. A lot of people out here talk about just taking off for somewhere else. It’s sort of our universal dream. It’s pretty pointless when you think about it: we all know that anywhere else we could go is just as bad as this place. When you’re out on the street, it doesn’t really matter what city you’re in. Skid row is skid row. One’s as bad as the next. And you can’t try to live in the woods like Kane was talking about, although a lot of people out here seem to harbor that fantasy. You hear them talking about it all the time. Charlie calls it the Robin Hood Syndrome. You know, the dream of living in Sherwood Forest where it’s always sunny and warm and there’s plenty of food and everything’s just peachy. No one ever fucks with you. You can even leave all of the horrible bullshit you did behind you. It’s a common fantasy among the homeless. But that’s all it is: a fucking fantasy. No, I was telling Kane the truth back there. There’s no place left where you can just go build a shack and be left alone. If there was, I’d have done it years ago. No, the whole damned country belongs to someone. Squatters aren’t welcome. Especially a bunch of filthy, homeless junkie squatters like me. They’d probably shoot us just for sport. I can’t say I’d blame them.
Now, what I said about the trains isn’t a fantasy. Not by a long shot. The truth is, it’s more like the fucking nightmare of all nightmares. A very real nightmare. The trains play a big part in our lives; particularly for those of us who live out here at night. They’re a world onto themselves. They’re most definitely not like those old stories about smiling hobos during the Great Depression, riding the rails and singing folk songs from town to town. That’s a load of bullshit. The reality is a hell of a lot different. It’s a hell of a lot worse than you can imagine, too. The railroad yard is about a mile and a half east of here. Talk about a fucking pit! That’s another place I’ve tried to avoid over the years. Take it from me: that is one seriously dangerous place! The homeless go there because trains provide a source of income. By that, I mean people break into the trains and steal the shit they’re carrying. These are freight trains, not passenger trains. They carry all kinds of shit. Anyway, everyone out here knows where the tracks are and they especially know where on the tracks the train stops when it gets stuck. That’s what they’re waiting for – for the train to get stuck. It happens all the time. It’s got something to do with having more than one train on the tracks at the same time. If one of them gets stuck, then all of them get stuck. They have to stop wherever they are until they fix the problem. A train could get stuck on the tracks two hundred miles away and all of the other trains on that track get stuck, too. You’d think they’d have fixed that by now, but they haven’t. It’s a fucked-up system. Hey, tell me something out here that isn’t.
Whenever a train gets stuck on the tracks, homeless people descend on it like hyenas on an antelope carcass. Fucking scavengers. They break into the boxcars and steal everything they can get their hands on. You have to see it to believe it. It’s a fucking free-for-all. They’re like ants crawling all over it. They don’t give a shit what’s in the train. They just steal it, whatever it is. Then they sell it. You see people on the sidewalk at two in the morning with their tiny little swap meets selling five thousand dollars’ worth of power tools or piles of brand-new clothes or some other shit. Yeah, that’s a freight train hoard. I’ve done it myself. I got a few boxes of car parts once. I didn’t know what the fuck they were, but a guy at the swap meet gave me sixty bucks for them. Not bad for five minutes’ work. You have to be careful, though. The railroad has their own cops and they’ll put the boots to you big time if they catch you breaking into a train. Hey, what do you expect? You’re tearing up their train and stealing their shit. Of course they’re going to kick your ass if they catch you! Even worse, if you get caught fucking with a train, it’s a federal offense. You can wind up doing some serious time.
A few people like to pass on the trains and try to break into the track-switching buildings instead. They want to steal the electronic shit inside. I hear it’s worth a fortune. There’s one of those things nearby the entrance to the train yard. I’ve seen it, but I’ve never been inside of it. If you ask me, breaking into one of those places is sheer suicide. For one thing, they’re built like little army pillboxes. They’re made of really thick concrete with heavy steel doors. You’d need a fucking bazooka to get in there. And if you don’t rip yourself to shreds on the razor wire fence and you do manage to get inside, you’ll probably end up getting electrocuted when you try to steal the switch box. There’s a reason why those buildings are covered with signs that say “Danger – High Voltage!” There’s a lot of juice running through that shit, but some people just don’t read. They have to find out the hard way. It’s usually the last thing they ever learn, too. They’ve found guys in those places who got fried alive trying to rip off that shit. Sometimes they find the body all stiff from rigor mortis; still clutching the switch box. I know. I’ve seen them cart the bodies out. They’re all twisted up and burned to shit. Believe me, it isn’t pretty. Christ, even if you survive the shock, you’re never going to be the same. A couple million volts shooting right up your ass will definitely change your life. I don’t care what’s in those places; it’s not fucking worth it. You can’t sell it if you’re dead.
Oh, and the trains are dangerous all by themselves. A hundred thousand tons of moving steel usually is. People around here have gotten killed walking on the tracks. Some of them are accidents: drunks trip on the tracks and get chopped in half by a moving train. More often, they’re suicides. That’s what Kane was talking about. Suicide by train is pretty common around here. They call it catching the train. When somebody out here says so-and-so caught the train, it means they killed themselves by stepping in front of one. If you ask me, it’s a hell of a way to go. The trains don’t move too fast through here. If you step in front of one, you don’t get hit by a speeding train; you get crushed by a slow one. It’s fucking nasty. Somehow, you always know when it’s a suicide. Don’t ask me how. It’s just something that comes from being out here. The body has a quality to it that defies explanation. If it’s an accident, it’s senseless. If it’s a suicide, it makes sense. I can’t explain it any better than that. And hey, you don’t even have to be walking along the tracks to get squished. If you’re breaking into a train and it starts moving all of a sudden, you can slip and fall between the cars and get killed. Or worse. I remember there used to be a guy around here with no legs. He was prying open a boxcar when the train lurched forward and he fell onto the tracks. It ran over him. Took both of his legs off. Unfortunately for him, he lived. Life as a double amputee isn’t much of a life. His words; not mine. Now imagine being a double amputee in this fucking place. He used to sit in his wheelchair in front of my SRO. I’d see him when I went out at night and he’d be gone by the time I got back. I only ever talked to him once or twice. You’d think I could’ve spent a little time talking to the guy once in a while. I always got the impression that’s what he really wanted – someone to talk to. Legless crackheads don’t make a lot of friends, and this place is no different. Anyway, I haven’t seen him in a long time. I wonder what happened to him? Maybe he’s dead? He’s better off dead, that’s for sure. I don’t remember his name. I’m not sure I ever knew it. Maybe it’s written on a wall somewhere along with the rest of his story? This is my name. This is what happened to me. This is how I ended up. I was here. Remember me.
More important to some people than the trains is the train yard. The train yard is another fixture of the night. Some people spend a lot of time there. Don’t ask me why. It’s a tough place, and there are a lot of ways you can get hurt there. People like to build bonfires there, and there have been some nasty fires down there as a result. I guess the boxcars are a decent place to keep the rain off of your head, but there are much better ones and they aren’t half as dangerous. The train yard is a pretty good place to lose the cops if they’re chasing you, or so I’ve heard. It’s pitch dark and there are a lot of places to hide. Of course, it sucks because if you fall down in there, you land on something hard, sharp, or both. It hurts like a motherfucker. The cops hate chasing people in the train yard. The only way they’re likely to find you is if they set the dogs on you, but the cops don’t like to bring the dogs in there because they can get hurt running around in that shit. There are all kinds of things in there that can bust you up good, especially at night. No asshole out here is worth getting one of their dogs hurt. I agree. A dog is worth a lot more than any of us.
The big thing about the train yard is it’s the only place where you can sneak onto a train before it takes off for parts unknown. That’s what Kane was talking about doing. It’s a really stupid thing to do, but it’s not uncommon out here. Mostly, it’s the young guys who do it. They’re usually the only ones dumb enough to do it. Some guys have traveled all over the country that way. They jump on a freight train and go from one city to another. They don’t know where they’re going and they don’t care. I don’t know why they do it. Like I told Kane, every place is the same when you’re living on the street. Only the weather changes. If it weren’t for the names on the newspapers, you might never know what city you’re in. But if you’ve just got to get out and you don’t have any money and you don’t care where you end up, then the quickest way out is to hitch a ride on a freight train. It’s nothing new. People like us have been stowing away on trains since the train was invented. Some people did it all of their lives. But if it was anything like it is now, then those motherfuckers were a hell of a lot crazier than I am.
I avoid the trains the plague. They scare the living shit out of me. I’ve had nightmares about them. They’re just way too dangerous for me. There are a shitload of violent psychos on the trains, and they’re a million times worse than the ones in the city. I’m not making that up. They’re like something out of a fucking slasher movie. Shit, they’ve got their own little union! It’s true. Charlie told me about it. They call it the F.T.R.A. Charlie said it used to stand for Fuck the Reagan Administration. I guess they didn’t like Reagan. Now it stands for Freight Train Riders of America, or something like that. You see what you learn when you live on the street? You’ll see “F.T.R.A.” carved in a lot of boxcars. It’s not there because they’re bored, either. They want you to know you’re on their turf. That’s because they’re a bunch of stone cold killers; every last fucking one of them. Charlie said you had to kill someone just to get in. I believe it. People get killed on the trains all the time and no one ever knows about it. That’s what I was trying to tell Kane. You should hear some of the stories I’ve heard. The trains are a fucking human slaughterhouse. Those assholes will cave your head in with a club, take whatever you’ve got, cut your body into a dozen pieces and throw it over the side while the train goes through the middle of nowhere at a hundred miles an hour. No one will ever know. God, just imagine what they would do to me! I’ve imagined it quite a few times, and not because I wanted to! The more I learned about the trains; the more scared I got. That’s when I started having nightmares about it. The trains are a million times worse than you could ever imagine. And it’s not just stories. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen boxcars in the train yard with the insides covered in blood. A guy I know found a severed arm in one. The worst of the worst ride the trains. Hell, I even heard that some of them are cannibals. I believe it. Sure, I want to die; but not like that. There are a lot better ways to die. I don’t care too much what happens to my body after I’m dead, but I don’t want it to be someone’s dinner. I don’t care what you’ve done; no one deserves to go out like that.
So why did I tell you all of that? Because there are so many bullshit stories and myths about being homeless, and I want you to know the truth. That’s important. And it’s not just the people in the normal world who believe the bullshit. I mean, the trains? I wish I had a fucking nickel for every guy I’ve met out here who believed all of those goddamned “Boxcar Willie” stories about the romance of riding the rails. It’s like people who think hell is just a great big party and the devil is the DJ. They have no fucking idea.
Well, we’ve made it over to 8th Street. Maybe there’s somewhere around here I can get a pen and some paper for my letter? Probably not. 8th Street is a dope spot. I’ll probably do better heading west toward Meridian. I might be able to…fuck! OK, now I know I saw someone back there! Right over there! There was someone standing there! I’m sure of it! Fuck! Is someone after me? Is someone out looking for me? Who the hell could it be? I haven’t done anything lately, and I sure as hell haven’t fucked over anyone lately. But I know I saw someone! God, I hate this shit! You see what I have to live with? I can’t even trust my fucked up little brain to not make up imaginary people and freak me out with them! Maybe it’s the stress? It goes without saying that this has been one stressful fucking night for me. Even without the shit that’s happened, just knowing that it’s my last night on earth has been a shitload of stress. Can you believe I honestly thought that I could get through this night knowing that I’m going to kill myself and not feel any stress? How’s that for stupid? So is it stress and my wild imagination, or is somebody really after me? Or maybe it’s neither one? Maybe it’s the fucking angel of death? That could be. After all, I know I’m going to die in a few hours, so the angel of death must know it, too. He’s bound to show up to collect me, so maybe he’s following me around in my last few hours? Maybe this is what it’s like for everyone when they know they’re going to die? Maybe the angel of death follows you around on your last night until you cash in? Well, if it is the angel of death, he doesn’t look like much of an angel. He looked like just another homeless asshole out here. Then again, maybe the angel of death has to blend in. You know, he can’t afford to stand out, so he goes about his business in disguise. I guess that’s question number umpteen thousand and forty that I have to ask God when I see him. As fascinated as I’ve always been with death, I guess it’s not surprising that I’d want to know about the angel of death. I just hope to God that when I die, I won’t have to work for him. That would suck beyond words. One death is more than enough for me. I don’t want to make a business of it – especially not for eternity.
OK, stay sharp! It looks like we have another visitor. He’s coming over here. He doesn’t look familiar. He’s definitely one of us. A homeless guy, I mean. A black guy, about my age. He’s got a real spring in his step. That’s something you don’t usually see among the homeless. We tend to lumber along like zombies. Maybe he’s high? That would explain it. God, I hope he’s not looking for a fight – or worse.
“Hey, lady? You got a light?”
There’s nothing in his voice that sounds fishy. He seems genuinely friendly. I think that means he must be high.
“Yeah, I think so. Here you go.”
Remember what I said about how matches are useful? Here’s the proof. People appreciate a light around here.
“Thanks. It’s my last cigarette. I’ve been lookin’ forward to this one all night.”
I don’t know this guy. He looks like he’s been out here a while. His clothes have that asphalt gray patina that comes from sleeping in alleys and on sidewalks. If you’re white like me, your skin gets it, too. Strange. He seems pretty upbeat. What the fuck has he got to be upbeat about?
“Thanks, lady. You know, I’d give you one if I had another.”
“Just wanted to let you know. I don’t want you to think I’m bein’ selfish. Hey, you wanna split this one?”
“No thanks. I don’t smoke anymore.”
“Damn! I thought everyone smoked out here!”
“Most do, but I gave it up years ago.”
“Smart girl. You’ll save yourself some money that way. These motherfuckers are expensive.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s how they’re going to get rid of smoking: they’ll just make it so that no one can afford it anymore.”
“I heard that, girl! Hey, what’s your name?”
I’ve got to be careful. Strangers who start out nice are usually the most dangerous. I need to keep him ten feet away, at least. I’ve already got my hand on my knife – just in case.
“I said, what’s your name?”
“Miranda. That’s a nice name.”
“Thanks. I always thought so.”
“Is this your spot?”
Asking about territory. Good. That usually means you’re trying to avoid a confrontation. That’s a good sign.
“Nope. I’m just taking a breather.”
“Good enough. I’m Lamont.”
“Nice to meet you, Lamont.”
Jesus! A handshake! Most people don’t shake hands out here. He seems really friendly. That could be a trick. Watch yourself, Miranda. Don’t let him get too close and keep one hand on your knife. Remember; there’s no such thing as being too careful.
“So what’re you up to, Miranda?”
“Nothing much. Just waiting for Godot.”
Damn! I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that one tonight!
“Who’s that? A friend of yours?”
“No, it’s just a saying. It means I’m just wasting time. Sitting around waiting for something that’s never going to come along; trying to pass the time by talking about shit that doesn’t mean anything. You know, kind of like what everyone does around here, all night long.”
Jesus, he really liked that one! He’s laughing his ass off! He must be as high as a kite! I wonder what he’s on? It’s definitely not heroin.
“Yeah, that’s what we do, isn’t it? Waste time! It ain’t like we got much else to do. We done wasted everythin’ else, right?”
“You got that right.”
“So the only thing that matters anymore is how you waste it!”
I’m not sure I ever thought about it that way. Damn! This guy’s pretty smart!
“You know what? You’re right.”
“Glad we agree.”
“So what about you, Lamont? How are you wasting time tonight?”
“Me? Oh, I’m just makin’ the rounds, lookin’ for shit. Ain’t nothin’ in these dumpsters. I guess somebody got to ’em before I did.”
“Yeah, these things get picked clean pretty early.”
“It’s gettin’ so a man can’t make a decent livin’ out here!”
Is this guy for real?
“Uh, I don’t think anybody’s making what you’d call a decent living out here.”
“Not true, girl! Not true! I do all right. Shit, I found some good scrap over at the next block. Must’ve torn it out of a building somewhere. Sheet metal. Should be good for a few bucks. I figured I’d see if there’s any more over here before I head down to the recycle place.”
“Don’t know the name. It’s the one with the green stripe on top of the wall. You know that one?”
“Yeah, I know it. How come you’re heading there now? They don’t open up until half past five.”
“Yeah, but you got to get there early! You want to be there right when they open. They take in too much during the day; they don’t pay as good later on.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“It’s true. What? You don’t do the cans and shit?”
“Nope. Too many people are into that recycling crap. There’s a little too much competition for me. And I don’t very much like carrying all of those cans and bottles. They get pretty heavy.”
“So what do you do for money? What? You get it…you know…the old fashioned way?”
That’s his polite way of asking if I’m a hooker. You’d think I’d be insulted, but it’s a reasonable assumption out here. Plus, I’m pretty much beyond being insulted right now.
“No, that’s not my thing.”
“That’s good. You’ll live longer.”
“Don’t count on it.”
A little inside joke, there. Hey, I don’t know this guy. What do I care if he figures out that I’m going to kill myself tonight?
“So how do make your money? Are you on the welfare?”
“I burned through that shit a long time ago. I used to get a pretty good disability check, but they slashed that down to almost nothing. These days, I mostly panhandle.”
“Oh, you’re on the cup, huh?”
“Uh-huh. Shaking the cup in their faces. ‘Hey Mister, can you spare some change?’ Like something out of a bad fucking movie.”
“I heard that. That can be pretty tough sometimes, can’t it?”
“Oh, yeah! It’s got its risks. I’m surprised they don’t just punch me in the face. I can be a real pest sometimes.”
“Nah, they ain’t gonna hit a woman.”
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
“I’ve got the bruises to prove it.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Damn shame about that. Hittin’ a woman. That ain’t right. But that’s how it is out here. People got no respect.”
“Not when you’re shaking a cup in their face and asking for money.”
“Yeah, but I’ll bet a young lady like you probably does all right with the cup. A lot better than I could.”
“I’m not that young.”
“You’re young enough. Livin’ out here’ll age you fast, but you’re still young.”
“If you say so.”
“Except for your eyes. You got tired eyes. I know about that shit. It comes from seein’ too damned much. That’s what happens, you know: you wind up on the streets and you see too goddamned much. It eats away at you. A man ain’t supposed to see that kind of shit. A woman damn sure ain’t.
“No argument there.”
“So how much you get with the cup?”
“It depends. I can get about eight or ten bucks if I start early and the cops don’t chase me away. Some days I can almost hit fifteen.”
“Where you work it?”
“The far side of Meridian. About two blocks. Right down there on the edge.”
“By the Green Lawn?”
He’s definitely been out here for a while if he knows about the Green Lawn. That’s the demarcation line. You go panhandling past there during the day and you’ll probably end up with a nightstick shoved up your ass.
“You know it. You sure as hell don’t want to go any further.”
“So you don’t go into the Emerald City?”
“Are you kidding? Not unless I want my ass kicked!”
“Yeah, the cops get pretty vicious over there. The security guards, too.”
“That’s putting it mildly. They do not like panhandlers! They’ll fuck you up good if they catch you there.”
“Oh, yeah! I’ve heard ’em. They tell you, ‘Stay the fuck out! Or else!’”
“Yeah, and we both know what the ‘Or else’ means, don’t we?”
“Goddamned right, girl!”
“A combat boot up your ass!”
“And the motherfuckin’ chokehold!”
“You know it! Been there; done that!”
“Ain’t we all, girl? Ain’t we all? And we all got the motherfuckin’ scars to prove it!”
Yeah, he’s been out here long enough to know the score. You know, I kind of like this guy. He’s actually pleasant. But I have to keep my guard up. He might just be going through a routine to knock me off my guard. If he is, he’s got it down to a fucking science.
“You got it, Lamont! Stay the fuck out of the Emerald City. But I do all right over where I hang.”
“Yeah, folks are more willin’ to help out a woman than a guy.”
“That’s true. I don’t know why, though.”
“It’s on account of they figure a man out here ought to be workin’ for a livin’. But a woman? They figure she must’ve run into some bad shit if she’s out on the street.”
“Yeah, I think we all ran into some bad shit. Don’t you?”
“You got that right! What happened to you? Fucked-up husband beat you? Put you out on the street?”
“No, I’m crazy.”
“Oh, you got the screamin’ in the ears, huh?”
“I got to say, I don’t see it. You look all right to me.”
“Yeah, well…it kind of comes and goes.”
Actually, it doesn’t. But I’m too tired to try to explain it to him. Besides, he seems pretty happy. Why bring him down with that shit?
“So what about you, Lamont? What’s your story?”
“Oh, same as everyone: no job, no money, no home. Not unless you count the pen.”
A lot of people around here consider the penitentiary the closest thing to a real home that they’ve got anymore. I wouldn’t, but a lot of us do.
“Not so’s you’d notice. Nah, it’s pretty much just me. Been that way since I was a kid.”
“Did you do time?”
“Oh, hell yeah! A couple of years. Caught a dope case. Got out…what? Two years ago? Somethin’ like that. You?”
“Never had the pleasure. A few days here and there in the women’s lockup. That’s all.”
“Oh, they done sent your ass to the Girl’s School, huh?”
“You got it.”
“Girl’s School” is what they call the local women’s lockup around here. I’m not entirely sure why. Your mom definitely wouldn’t like the lessons they teach you. Take it from me, you learn some nasty shit in there – whether you like it or not.
“Well, then you be thankful for that, girl! You’re lucky. Doin’ time’s a motherfucker!”
“I am. It’s about the only thing I am thankful for anymore.”
“Sounds like you’re in a bad place. That true?”
“Look around you, Lamont. We’re both in a bad place.”
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“I know what you meant. I’m sorry. It’s been one of those nights, you know?”
“Yeah, I know about that shit. I done had plenty of them myself. So how long you been on the streets?”
“Almost seven years.”
“Damn! You don’t look it! You look pretty clean to me. You got a squat somewhere?”
“Yeah, a room at the SRO.”
“How’d you swing that?”
“Social Services. They got me in after they dried me out.”
“They done sent you to detox?”
“Oh, man! Girl, you got my sympathy! That’s a motherfucker!”
“Tell me about it!”
“So was you on the bottle, or was you on the needle?”
Good call! Out here, it’s got to be one or the other, right?
“The needle. Pretty much since I got here.”
“You still clean?”
“Yeah, for the most part. I still chip now and then, but not too much.”
“You better watch yourself. You might get hooked again.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“Could be. Maybe you could get out?”
“You mean out of here?”
“Yeah! You got a plan?”
Is he fucking kidding me? I think I’ve explained to you how that’s a fucking pipe dream. Plan? What plan?
“Not even close.”
Lamont here is pretty damned talkative. He’s probably been smoking crack or something. Some kind of stimulant. Like I said, he’s not on heroin. That takes you down. You could never hold a conversation the way he has if you’re on heroin.
“Well, don’t give up, girl! There’s ways to do it, you know. That’s what I’m workin’ on. I’m tryin’ to get myself set up with a job.”
“Construction. I used to do that shit. Drywall, mostly. I figure if I can save up a few bucks, I can get a room. After that, I can get cleaned up and try to get on with a crew. They do a lot of work around here. They pick up guys for a day here and there. I figure once I get in, I can get myself hired on full-time. Then it’s goodbye fuckin’ skid row!”
“Sounds like a nice plan.”
“You can’t give up, girl. You give up; you just prove ’em right.”
“All of them motherfuckers who say we’re out here ’cause we want to be.”
“I don’t know. Giving up seems like a good idea to me.”
“Yeah, it feels that way sometimes. But it don’t have to be that way. You could do it. You could get back on your feet.”
“I’m not sure I ever was on my feet.”
“You tellin’ me you was born here?”
“Then you need to get back to where you was. You got to set your mind on it. You’re a smart girl. I can tell.”
“No, I’m not. I’m stupid. I’m a stupid, crazy girl. Always have been; always will be.”
“You can’t be thinkin’ like that! You think like that too long; it’ll kill you! I know. I’ve seen it happen.”
“So don’t give up, then. You got to find a way. Show ‘em they’re wrong. That’s all there is to it. You got to find a way. Find a way and keep fightin’ ‘til you get to where you want to be. And where you want to be is out of this motherfuckin’ place!”
“You got that right.”
“Well, that’s the end of my smoke. I was lookin’ forward to it and it was damn well worth it! Even if them motherfuckers do kill me; I love ’em.”
“What’s life without a vice here and there?”
“Absolutely! Got to have somethin’ to give you a few minutes’ peace. Especially in this motherfuckin’ place. And it’s legal. Can’t say that about most of the shit out here.”
“Yeah, I guess you should enjoy it while it’s still legal. Or until it kills you.”
“Look, I got to get going. I got my shit stashed pretty good, but if I ain’t careful, someone’s gonna find it. Can’t let that happen.”
“No, you can’t. You worked for it. You keep it.”
“That’s the plan, girl.”
“Take care of yourself, Lamont. It was nice talking to you.”
“It was good talkin’ to you, too. Hey, you want to come along?”
“No, I think I’ll just sit here for a while.”
“Suit yourself. Don’t forget what I said. Keep at it, you hear? Don’t let them motherfuckers win. It ain’t worth it. Lord knows they ain’t worth it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You do that, girl. You do that.”
I wish it were that easy. But whatever he’s got that’s keeping him going – besides the crack, I mean – I just don’t have it. I wish I did, but I know better. I’ve come too far to turn back now. And I can’t lie to myself anymore. I wish I could, but I can’t. I know better.
Lamont sounds like he might actually be a good guy. The again, it was probably the crack doing the talking. Most of it, anyway. Still, I liked talking to him. Most people just want to vent or pour out their miseries. It’s nice to talk to someone who’s genuinely upbeat about something – besides their latest score, that is. It never ceases to amaze me how anyone here can be so fucking positive. The truth is, they’re not that uncommon. I don’t know how they do it. We’ve all hit rock bottom and yet there are still people who think that somehow they can turn it all around. They never do, but they don’t stop thinking that they can. They never get so frustrated that they just give up. How do they do it? How do they stay so fucking positive? Why can’t I be like that? Why do I have to know that it’s fucking hopeless and no amount of work or prayer or whatever is going to make one goddamned bit of difference? Why did I end up like this? God, isn’t it bad enough that all of this shit happened to me? Why did you have to make it so that I see everything so damned clearly? Do you really hate me that much? If this is what you do to me in this life, then what are you going to do to me in the next? Is all of this part of some plan of yours? Are you trying to tell me that I don’t have a chance, living or dead? Did you send Lamont to show me how useless I am? Or Jefferson, back at that bodega? Because that’s sure as hell the message I’m getting from them. God, this night is turning out worse than I ever imagined. So why should that come as a surprise? It’s just like everything else in my life. It should’ve been easy, but it turned into a fucking nightmare. And I couldn’t stop it no matter how hard I tried.
All right, it seems I have a visitor. If you hang out on the street all night long, you’re bound to come across him and his friends.
“Hey, Mister Rat. How are you doing tonight?”
No, I’m not talking to some imaginary friend. I’m talking to the rat. See him? He’s right there by my foot. He’s a big one. He’s like two rats in one. You could probably trip over him. You have to watch where you walk around here. You don’t want to step on the rats. They scream. Sometimes they even bite you. It’s a good way to get an infection.
“What are you doing down there? Do you smell something? Are you hungry? Sorry, I don’t have anything to give you. It looks like I already ate my last meal. Jesus, that was the day before yesterday. I guess I’ll be dying on an empty stomach.”
He doesn’t care. He’s a rat. Why should he care? See how he’s poking around my shoe? He probably smells all of the shit and blood that I’ve walked through. Rats can smell it a mile away. They like to eat it from the bottom of your shoe. Sometimes you fall asleep out here and you wake up and there’s three or four rats nibbling away at the bottoms of your shoes. Then again, sometimes it’s not just your shoes. Isn’t that disgusting? No wonder people hate rats.
“You want to chew the crap off of my shoe? Go ahead. Just don’t run up my pants leg, OK? That’s a deal breaker. I can’t handle that shit.”
Hmm. He doesn’t seem to be interested. Maybe he knows better?
“Well, I’ve got to get going, Mister Rat. You take care of yourself.”
And away he goes! Off to go pester someone else, I guess. Yeah, that’s the life of a skid row rat for you. It’s not much. Kind of like ours, huh?
Now how’s that for disgusting? Hey, if you’re going to live on the street, you’d better get used to the rats. They’re sure as hell not going anywhere. That’s another weird aspect of my life out here. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years just staring at the rats. They used to freak me out when I first got here, but eventually I decided they weren’t out to hurt you. That’s more than I can say for the people out here. Now, that’s not to say that I like them. I hate them. I hate the rats. I don’t mind it when they chew on the bottom of my shoe, but I hate it when they crawl all over me. Then I completely fucking lose it! That happens a lot when you fall asleep in an alley. They head right for you. They can smell you or something. On a cold night, they sort of home in on your body heat. They want to stay warm, too. Imagine waking up in an alley with a hundred rats crawling all over you. No, you can’t imagine it. Trust me, you have to experience it for yourself. Did you ever notice that rats are one of God’s ugliest creations? Besides bugs, I mean. It’s weird when you think about it: they look kind of cute when you see them in pet stores, but out here, they look like absolute shit. They look diseased. There’s something about them that just screams sickness and filth. That’s the best way I can put it: sickness and filth. The fucking rats out here go hand in hand with dirt and disease. Why do I find them so ugly? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s because they don’t have hair on their tails. There’s something really fucked up about that. If you’ve got a tail, it should have hair on it. Unless you’re a lizard. Then it shouldn’t have any hair. Of course, then you’ve got enough problems just being a lizard, right? Jesus, do you see how my mind works? It’s the last night of my fucking life and here I am with a rat crawling on my foot, eating people’s shit off of my shoe, and I’m debating the pros and cons of hairless tails and being a fucking lizard! If that doesn’t prove I’m completely fucking nuts, then I don’t know what does. For that matter, why do I let these filthy fucking creatures chew on my shoe in the first place? Hey mom? Do you see what your daughter’s become? Now do you see why I want to kill myself? Christ! What I should have done was boot Mister Rat’s bubonic plague-carrying ass down the block! Take it from me, you can kick a rat pretty damned far. I’ve put more than a few of them right between the uprights, if you know what I mean. But what the hell? It’s my last night. I’m in sort of a die-and-let-live mood. So I may as well let the fucking rats chew the shit off of my shoes. I mean, what the fuck? I won’t be needing them much longer, but I appreciate the cleaning.
I can see the police helicopter flying in a circle east of here. That means they’re looking for someone. See the spotlight aimed at the ground? Those helicopters are a constant presence around here. They fly day and night, unless it’s raining. You can almost always hear the sound of the rotor blades overhead, like a constant droning. You know it’s the cops because nobody else is allowed to fly over the downtown area. Officer Loomis told me that once. He said sometimes the news helicopters are allowed, but for the most part, it’s just the police. I just think it sort of makes the place seem like a war zone. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because I associate helicopters with the army and war. Growing up, I only ever saw them on TV in war movies and in video games, which were always war games since that’s the only kind my brothers wanted to play. I just know that out here, they’re the enemy. They make it almost impossible to get away from the cops. Those fucking things can find you anywhere! They’ve got spotlights powerful enough to turn night into day and they’ve got infra-red that can see you no matter where you hide. I wonder what they’ve got going on over there? Probably a burglary. That’s what they’re usually doing: looking for burglars. They search the rooftops for them. I can’t tell you how many times the cops rousted me during the day because I was sleeping on a rooftop and they thought I was a burglar. Christ, couldn’t they let a girl sleep? They had to see that I wasn’t moving! I slept up there because it was the safest place. You’re at your most vulnerable when you’re asleep, so you need to pick your sleeping spots carefully. A lot of people see the homeless crashed out on the sidewalk and figure that’s where we all sleep, but not if you want to avoid trouble. A sleeping woman out here is an invitation to rape, so I needed to find places where nobody would go. Places where I could see them coming if they did find me. The only drawback is that if some asshole corners you on a rooftop, there’s nowhere to go. It’s a fight for sure. Fortunately, that rarely happened to me. And I had a better chance of pitching some asshole rapist over the side of a roof than I did of beating him going toe to toe. I’m glad I never had to do it.
Well, stay over there. You won’t be bothering me if you’re over there. By the time I’m ready to cash in, they’ll be down for the night. And they never bothered me while I was on the roof of Miranda’s Place. I guess that’s to be expected. People are supposed to be on the top level of a parking structure. Even if there aren’t any cars parked up there, they never bothered me. I guess they figured I couldn’t be causing any trouble if there weren’t any cars up there. There was nothing for me to steal. And the cops in the helicopter don’t give a shit about some crazy junkie shooting up on the roof of a parking structure. It’s not like they’re going to land the thing to arrest me for a chickenshit misdemeanor.
I wonder what Charlie’s thinking right now? He’s not asleep. No way. He’s a night owl like me. He’s awake. I wonder what he’s doing? If they’ve got a TV in his room, he’s probably watching it. You don’t get to watch a lot of TV when you live on the street. During the day, they sometimes have a TV in the window of the electronics shops over on Meridian Avenue and you can stand outside and watch for a while. Until the owner comes out and chases you away, that is. They always do that, eventually. You know, I couldn’t name three shows that are on TV right now. That should tell you how long it’s been since I watched TV. And I couldn’t name a single first-run movie, either. They don’t play those around here, and it costs too much for a ticket to get in. What would Charlie be watching? The news, I’ll bet. Charlie likes to be informed. God knows he’s the most informed person about the shit that goes on out here. Nothing escapes his attention. Not ever. If somebody wants to know what’s going on or where so-and-so is, they come to Charlie. If somebody wants to know where to find something or how they can get whatever it is they need, they come to Charlie. And he always knows. He’s always got the answers. It’s really amazing. Sometimes I learn more in a few hours just sitting next to him and keeping my ears open than I ever did in school. It’s a shame Charlie never became a teacher. He’d be the best teacher in the world.
I wonder who he’ll teach after I’m gone? One of the things I’m worried about is that no matter how many times I say Charlie will understand why I killed myself, he always told me not to waste what he taught me. I can honestly say I haven’t wasted any of it. It’s kept me alive and going since I got here. I’ve used everything he taught me, more than once. But I haven’t passed it on to anyone. I haven’t had a chance. While everyone wants to listen to Charlie, nobody wants to listen to Crazy Miranda. Well, almost nobody. People out here know I’m smart and I know a lot of shit about this place, but they don’t seem too anxious to tap my vast reservoir of knowledge. They’d rather tap me between the legs. So who will Charlie’s next student be? I don’t know anybody who has what it takes. Charlie’s very particular about who he takes under his wing. He has to see something in you. I don’t know what the fuck he sees in me, but he sees something. He wouldn’t waste his time with me if he didn’t. I wish I knew what it was. I wish I knew and I could use it. Maybe things would’ve turned out differently for me if I could? Maybe one day after Charlie’s gone, I’d have been the new Charlie? God, that’s a scary thought! Me as an eighty year-old woman on skid row, dispensing knowledge and forcing people to read the classics! No, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think it would work. He’s got a strength I could never have. I don’t know where he got it. I’ve asked him about it, and he always says I don’t want to know where it came from. I know he’s done some pretty horrible things in his life. He told me he was pretty angry when he came home from the war, and he got mixed up with the wrong people. That’s how he ended up in prison. He said it was either get his head together, or die in a cell like the rest of them. He said he didn’t survive the war just to die for some useless shit. Maybe that’s the difference between us? He’s got a survival instinct that’s a hell of a lot stronger than mine. After all of the shit he’s been through in his life, he should’ve died a thousand times over, but he didn’t. And to be honest, I hope to God that didn’t wear off on me. I’d hate to jump to my death only to find out I survived it somehow. A lot of people dream of being immortal. Since I got here, it’s been one of my greatest fears. Fortunately, I don’t think I have to worry about that. Nobody is immortal. I don’t care how strong you are; everyone dies, and they all die just as easily as the next guy. This place is living proof of that. I know. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it time and time again.